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Paulo Freire: Dialogue as Communication and Liberation

Updated: Sep 28, 2021

Paulo Freire’s method is a dynamic intersubjective relationship between two active agents mediated by the world. It is a process of developing critical awareness that understands reality and moves to change it. Liberating dialogue is at the heart to this process of formation. In this essay, Alexandre Martins* focuses on Freire’s perspective of liberating dialogue that – grounded on love, humility, and hope – is true communication to re-create the world.

Liberating dialogue is a key concept to understand Paulo Freire’s method of formal and popular education. A liberating dialogical engagement among agents in their reality is a process of communication, learning, and transformation. Dialogue is not an easy task. Although it seems to be an existential necessity for human beings, engaging in a true dialogue requires an honest effort from one interlocutor to interact with another in an inter-relationship among subjectivities. This requires openness to listen to the other without prejudgments and with a disposition to learn. Paulo Freire says: “Dialogue is an encounter among women and men who name the world… It is an act of creation.”[1] In a dialogue, people are active agents who, mediated by their contexts and perspectives, create and recreate their world. So it is a collective action of creativity and growth. An authentic dialogue, in which one does not attempt to dominate the other, is an “act of liberation” for both interlocutors who address the world “which is to be transformed and humanized.”[2]

For Freire, dialogue as an act of liberation must begin with the presupposition that all people, regardless of who they are, where they come from, and their age, have something to offer and a potential to engage in a creative dialogue to create and re-create the world. This is not easy. It is particularly complicated at the present time, which is marked by a paradoxical dilemma. On the one hand, the globalized and technological world has facilitated communication and interactions among cultures and peoples. In addition, global migration, regardless of the reason, has made local societies more and more pluralistic and diverse. In other words, human mobility creates societies where different peoples share the same space.

Diversity and global communication should be seen as an opportunity to increase dialogue to foster creativity and human growth. On the other hand, the globalized world and its pluralistic societies have seen a significant growth of intolerance nourished by a lack of dialogue as an act of liberation and creation of the world. This paradoxical dilemma is clearly visible when one looks at polarized political debates in many countries and rise radical far-right movements and political leaders. Intolerance and lack of dialogue are clearly visible in these polarized political contexts. (One of these contexts is Freire’s homeland Brazil, where one sees far-right leaders using the democratic regime to force a return of a military dictatorship. Perhaps this is a situation that Freire would never imagine after his experience of fighting the Brazilian dictatorship [1964-1985], being persecuted, exiled, and then returning to re-build the democracy that some radical Brazilians want to kill today, among them Brazil’s current president: Jair Bolsonaro.)

It is hard to see, in the short term, how to leave this situation of intolerance with which the world, particularly, in country like Brazil and the USA, has been confronted. But hope cannot be lost and, for those who still believe that dialogue as an act of liberation and creation of the world is possible, Paulo Freire offers a powerful account from which to begin a conversation of mutual learning and recreation of the world. In his Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire says: “Dialogue cannot exist, however, in the absence of a profound love of the world and for people. The naming of the world, which is an act of creation and re-creation, is not possible if it is not infused with love. Love is, at the same time, the foundation of dialogue and dialogue itself.”[3] In his book Education for Critical Consciousness, he adds: “Born of a critical matrix, dialogue creates a critical attitude. It is nourished by love, humility, hope, faith, and trust. When the two ‘poles’ of the dialogue are thus linked by love, hope, and mutual trust, they can join in a critical search for something. Only dialogue truly communicates.”[4]

Mutual trust is far from those who are on different sides of the political fight in Brazil, the USA, or elsewhere, including inside Christianity and theological “debates.” Consequently, there is no true communication. However, this barrier begins to fall when someone from one side opens him/herself to love the other from the opposite side. Just as Freire says, without a profound love for people there is no dialogue. This requires a huge movement of humility, hope, faith, and trust as virtues that foster an authentic, tolerant, and critical dialogue. As a Catholic, perhaps Freire wrote this inspired by Jesus who stated: “Love one another as I have loved you” (John 13: 34), and encouraged his disciples to love their enemies and pray for them (Mathew 5: 43). The Christian tradition also offers light to illuminate experiences of establishing a liberating and creative dialogue.

I mentioned this Christian tradition because of the close relationship that Freire had with Catholic communities in Brazil, especially with Basic ecclesial communities and liberation theology. Freire’s method of liberation education grounded in dialogue for learning and re-creation of the world was adopted by many of these communities, Catholic’s social ministry, and grassroots social movement. This led the Latin America Bishops to invite Freire to participate in the CELAM’s conference of Medellín in 1968. With a Brazilian bishop and a priest Cândido Padin and Julio Munaro, Freire helped to draft a text on education that became a chapter in the final document of this conference. Following the spirit of the Second Vatican Council, and in certain level influenced by Freire’s perspective through Brazilian bishops who had experience using his method in their communities, CELAM’s Conferences also opted for following this spirit of dialogue, especially in Medellín (1968) and Puebla (1979). Medellín encouraged a liberating education based on critical dialogue because this is what “Latin America needs to redeem itself from unjust servitude and, above all, from its own egoism.”[5] Puebla affirmed that the Catholic community must be a “bridge of contact and dialogue.”[6] Then it added: “In an attitude of sincere listening and welcoming, in this contact and dialogue we must address issues that are raised from their own temporal environment.”[7] ACELAM’s Document of Aparecida also embraced dialogue as a way of announcing the good-news and denouncing social sin, “a dialogue from different cultural worldviews: celebration, inter-relationship, and revival of hope.”[8]

Pope Francis is a recipient and promotor of this tradition grounded on a liberating dialogue. Dialogue is a central element of Pope Francis’ pontificate. He usually begins his texts and documents affirming he is offering a reflection to “enter into dialogue with all people.”[9] In the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, Francis argues that social dialogue is important to construct peace.[10] He says: “Evangelization also involves the path of dialogue. For the Church today, three areas of dialogue stand out where she needs to be present in order to promote full human development and to pursue the common good: dialogue with states, dialogue with society – including dialogue with cultures and the sciences – and dialogue with other believers who are not part of the Catholic Church.”[11] And in his Encyclical Laudato Si’, Francis stresses: “Today in view of the common good, there is urgent need for politics and economics to enter into a frank dialogue in the service of life, especially human life.”[12] Perhaps, Francis is the world leader who most promotes Freire’s view of a dialogue able to join people from different backgrounds to re-create the world.

Although dialogue is not an easy task in itself, and a politically polarized society with a tendency to intolerance makes this task even more complicated, without a liberating and creative dialogue able to embody people’s participation for a mutual learning is not possible to re-create the world and re-build the political system to pursue the common good. Love is the principle and the foundation to foster and sustain the encounter among women and men to engage in acts of liberation and creation of the world. For Freire, this love is in the basis for people’s engagement that needs to be critical in a dialogical perspective. Conscientização is the process comes from a liberating education and “represents the development of the awakening of critical awareness.”[13] When we have a dynamic and cyclical relationship between love, dialogue, and conscientization, it is possible people move beyond difference to engaging a transformative process concerned with social and political responsibility to re-create the world. According to Freire, liberating dialogue offer a critical understanding that leads to critical action, avoiding massification and promoting truth communication.[14] Shaped by love and conscientização, dialogue is communication that liberates.

“Dialogue further requires an intense faith in humankind, faith in their power to make and remake, to create and re-create, faith in their vocation to be more fully human.”

[love, humility, and hope are needed to dialogue “becomes a horizontal relationship of which mutual trust between the dialoguers is the logical consequence.”[15]

*Alexandre A. Martins is an assistant professor at Marquette University in Wisconsin, USA. He is a Brazilian who has broad experience using Freire's method in his work in education and health care. His book The Cry of the Poor: liberation ethics and justice in health care (Lexington Books, 2020)

[1] Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (New York: Continuum, 2000), 89. [2] Ibid. [3] Ibid. [4] Paulo Freire, Educação como prática da liberdade, 3 ed. (Rio de Janeiro: Paz e Terra, 1971), 107. [5] Medellín, 117 [4.8]. [6] Puebla no. 1226 [7] Puebla, no. 1227. [8] Aparecida, no. 97. [9] Laudato Si’, no. 3. [10] Evangelii Gaudium, nos. 238-258. [11] Ibid., no. 238. [12] Laudato Si’, no. 189. [13] Paulo Freire, Education for Critical Consciousness (New York: Continuum, 2005), 15. [14] Paulo Freire says the “true communication is not the exclusive transfer or transmission of knowledge from one Subject to another, but rather his co-participation in the act of comprehending of the object” (Paulo Freire, Education for Critical Consciousness, 140) [15] Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 90; 91.

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